An in-depth look at New Zealand v England at Eden Park this weekend
Women’s Rugby World Cup Final: The Key Battles
Six weeks, 24 matches, close to 400 players – and it all comes down to this: New Zealand v England in front of a sellout crowd at Eden Park on Saturday in the Rugby World Cup final.
It’s a final we’ve seen many times before. Half the previous eight finals have seen the two sides battle it out for the trophy and New Zealand have triumphed in all four of those games.
In fact, England have never beaten the Black Ferns in a World Cup, losing a semi-final in 1998 as well as the finals in 2002, 2006, 2010 and 2017. So can the Red Roses buck that trend this weekend? Or will New Zealand cap their comeback story by winning a sixth title and their first on home soil?
Ahead of the match, we drill down into a few of the most important areas. Make sure you don’t miss any of the action with our Rugby World Cup live stream guide.
Women’s Rugby World Cup Final: The Key Battles
Home advantage v home disadvantage
Will England relish or be cowed by the noise of 40,000 New Zealanders backing the home team? Will the Black Ferns embrace playing in front of a record crowd or feel burdened by the expectation to deliver? There are several theories surrounding who is under most pressure this weekend.
England coach Simon Middleton laughed off suggestions that his team would find the atmosphere intimidating. After all, when they played in the Six Nations Grand Slam decider against France in Bayonne earlier this year, they were booed off after the warm-up – yes, the warm-up! – and still went on to win the match.
“I think it’s more intimidating for them,” says Middleton. “To lose in front of your home crowd is tough. The pressure on them is massive. We’ve played in hostile environments and thrive on it.”
Yet head into the Black Ferns camp and they are clearly buzzing from the support the country has shown them over the past two months. It has boosted a team that for years were, as Ruby Tui describes it, “underground champions”.
Their previous successes hadn’t been celebrated to anywhere near the levels we are seeing now, but the nation has finally got behind the Black Ferns and so far the players have not been overawed by that new attention. Quite the opposite in fact.
Portia Woodman v Abby Dow
Before we discuss the battle up front, let’s celebrate two of the game’s most brilliant attacking players. Portia Woodman has scored more World Cup tries than any other player (male or female) while Abby Dow scored one of the greatest World Cup tries ever last weekend against Canada.
This time last year, Dow also fended off Woodman to speed away to a try at Franklin’s Gardens. They are on opposite wings this Saturday but their performances both with and without the ball are likely to be crucial to their side’s chances.
France were quick to shut down Woodman and Ruby Tui last weekend, denying them the space they had enjoyed previously in the tournament. That is just what England must do, too.
The Red Roses have shown frailties out wide in previous matches but Dow and Lydia Thompson are arguably the best defensive wingers in the squad (as well as being lethal attackers). They will be looking to show more solidity in that area, preventing the Black Ferns from building momentum and gaining metres in those channels. Ellie Kildunne, too, will be important at full-back – it was her rip that thwarted a late Canada attack last week.
Likewise, Woodman, as well as Tui and Renee Holmes, will need to be alert in defence or England could expose similar failings to last year.
Maul defence v maul attack
There has been no getting away from the Red Roses maul at this tournament. Of the 38 tries they have scored at this World Cup, 24 have come from lineout possession as their maul, with its myriad options, has proven almost impossible to stop.
In the semi-final, they did show variety and put more width on the ball as well as launching that incredible attack from behind their try-line, but there is no doubt they will be deploying their driving lineout in the final, particularly if the Black Ferns give them opportunities to kick for touch from penalties. As a sidenote, England are the most disciplined team at this World Cup, conceding an average of 8.2 penalties a game.
The performance of New Zealand’s forwards has improved at this tournament – a comparison of their matches against Wales in the pool and the quarter-final illustrates that – but will they be able to contain such a powerful weapon as England’s maul? Their defence in that facet was no match last year, with Amy Cokayne becoming the first England player to score a Test hat-trick against New Zealand.
Ruck speed v line speed
One of the reasons cited for the Black Ferns’ growing fanbase is their brand of rugby – fast, exciting, “chaos” as Kendra Cocksedge describes it.
To play like that they need quick ball, which they have had up to now. They have enjoyed an average ruck speed of 0-3 seconds in 69% of their matches at this tournament and an average gain-line success of 73%, allowing them to get on the front foot.
However, England have limited opponents to less than 54% gain-line success at the World Cup and will be looking to do the same this weekend. Plus, with a six-two split on the bench they have half-a-dozen powerful forwards who can ensure the physicality remains high across the 80 minutes.
In the face of France’s line speed in defence last week, New Zealand kicked more than twice as much as they had in previous matches and it will be interesting if England force them to put boot to ball more often too.
Winning run v winning run
When Hollie Davidson blows the whistle for the final time on Saturday, one team’s winning run is going to come to an end.
England, of course, are on a record winning streak of 30 successive Tests. They haven’t lost since being beaten by New Zealand in 2019 and are chasing three straight wins over the Black Ferns for the first time since 2012.
New Zealand have a couple of winning runs on the go. They have won 12 straight Tests at home (England were the last team to beat them in NZ, in Rotorua in 2017) and have triumphed in 13 consecutive World Cup matches. Then there’s the aforementioned unbeaten run against England at the tournament.
Wayne Smith v Simon Middleton
Simon Middleton remembers going to a Wayne Smith coaching masterclass when he was 18 and playing for Knottingley. He doesn’t recall the details of the session but more how Smith set it up and the confidence he had in his delivery. “A real coaching guru,” says Middleton.
The respect is mutual with Smith saying of Middleton: “He’s done a marvellous job. There aren’t enough platitudes for what he’s done. I was part of an All Blacks side that recorded 18 wins in a row and to win 30 is hard to get your head around.”
Yet on Saturday they will be trying to outfox each other. The selection of Holly Aitchison over Tatyana Heard at inside-centre suggests England may be looking to play more expansively this weekend (she is also a second playmaking option in the absence of the injured Helena Rowland). Smith is certainly expecting some curve balls and says: “We’ve got to be prepared for everything.”
It’s been billed as the ‘dream final’. Now let’s hope it delivers a match as exciting and competitive as the two semi-finals, if not more so.
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